Community Unitarian Universalist Church
March 18, 2001
Daytona Beach, Florida

"A Faith With Room to Grow"
A Sermon by Lloyd H. Dunham

Scripture:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 19

Perhaps you saw the cartoon in a recent issue of Reader's Digest.
It's about an executive
who doesn't understand diversity
as we practice it among UUs.
This executive is telling his secretary:
"We need to focus on diversity.
Your goal is to hire people who all look different
but think just like me."
Within Unitarian Universalism,
we seldom look alike,
and we rarely think alike!

While I speak this morning from a UU Christian perspective
I believe this theme speaks
to the many religious views
within Unitarian Universalism.

Some years ago
while I was traveling through New York state,
I stopped to see some old friends.
We'll call them George and Janet.
I was surprised to find
that they had become involved in a local church.
I wish that it was a UU congregation
since they have so many questions about religion.
George was sitting across the room from me.
His wife Janet had just told me
that she didn't really believe in God.
George calls himself an agnostic.
He was a little less gentle in his comments.
He said,
"I don't need to believe in a god.
I believe in the big bang!
Everything we see
came from one gigantic big bang!
So who needs God?"

As I sat there
my mind was racing
as I pondered my friend's comments.
Frankly I didn't find anything so strange
or shocking
in the "big bang."
As a liberal Christian
I believe that If that is the way God chose to do it,
so be it!
I didn't find that contrary
to what I believe.
But for George
the "big bang" was obviously a contradiction
to his understanding of Christianity.
Then I remembered
that George had grown up in a very rigid home
where religious beliefs were not discussed.
They were accepted without questioning.
Ever since,
George,
who was nearing his sixtieth birthday,
has been revolting from that rigid religious background
which gave him a faith
that had no room in which to grow.

When we reflect on the amazing changes in our life times,
we have cause to wonder what's coming in the twenty-first century.
What religious labels we may claim for ourselves,
isn't it time to ask ourselves:
Does my faith have room to grow
with an expanding knowledge
and understanding of the world?

My friend George,
defending his disbelief,
launched into telling me about
leading reputable scientists in astronomy
who have had some amazing things to say
about the place of the earth in the universe.
They have said
that this universe is so amazingly big
that our earth appears smaller and smaller,
a tiny part of one of the smaller galaxies
on the fringes of the universe.
There are uncounted others.
George then pointed out that
given what we know,
we can assume,
that there is intelligent life
on millions of other planets -
right now!

George reacted to this expanding universe with a kind of cynicism.
Our friend Herb reacted quite differently,
when he looked through his new telescope for the first time!
Herb, who is claims Judaism as his faith,
found his new eye on the sky exciting.
He was in awe of the vastness open before him.
His faith was affirmed and deepened.

In our house we are very aware of these new horizons in astronomy
since our son heads a team
that develops improved technology
for the Hubble Space Telescope.
Hubble has become our eye on this expanding universe,
and a constant challenge to our views of the Creator.

How big is our religious faith? ---
big enough to accommodate a growing understanding of the universe,
big enough to encompass life in other places,
big enough to allow for the Creator's unlimited creative genius?

+++

As a new Unitarian Universalist congregation
we from time to time receive new people into our community.
They don't all come believing the same things.
That's one of the great qualities of Unitarian Universalism!
Hopefully all within this liberal tradition
claim a faith that has room to grow,
a faith not trapped in rigid provincial forms.
I doubt that there is one among us here
whose faith hasn't gone through some real tests
and changes
over the years.

There is a lot of mystery to life,
phenomenon on which we dare not close the door.
A few years ago there appeared an article
in a popular women's magazine,
not unlike others that appear from time to time,
dealing with unusual religious experiences
and events -
about psychic experiences,
about experiences of passing through death
and returning to tell about them.
Does your faith have room
to consider such things?

***

For a number of years
it was my privilege to participate on the board
of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue Project
in the United Church of Christ.
About twenty years ago the UCC national judicatory,
passed a landmark resolution
on Jewish-Christian relations,
a resolution which I was privileged to help frame.
In the resolution the United Church of Christ took the position
that God's covenant with the Jewish people
remains fully valid
and that as Christians
the UCC does not consider its faith
the successor
or replacement
for Judaism.
For the most part,
that resolution was warmly welcomed and received
especially by our Jewish sisters and brothers.
But, as you might guess,
there were some strong negative reactions.
At one of our meetings in New York City
we received some of those negative comments.
Many of those negatives
came from people who suddenly had to re-examine
what it means to be Christian.
One person said,
"Do you mean to say
that we shouldn't be trying to convert Jews
anymore?"
Another said,
"You've sold out the uniqueness of Christianity!"
That comment seems
more about the claims to exclusiveness
of some Christians
than about the uniqueness of the faith.

Out of that kind of rigidness
people of all religious beliefs need to ask:
is my faith so hardened
that it can't grow?
Is Christianity or any other religious faith
so rigid and narrow
that there is no room
for new ideas
and new perspectives?

Does your faith have room to grow,
to see things in new perspectives?

When challenges of this kind come along
religious faith is put to the test.
A faith that is parochial,
that is tightly shaped
and rigidly defined,
is unable to relate to new ideas
and new understandings.

I am grateful to my teachers fifty years ago
for leading me through a struggle of faith
into an understanding that says,
"The Divine Spirit is that
beyond which there is nothing greater!
The Spirit of Life encompasses all.
If for some reason you find part of reality
that doesn't fit your understanding of deity,
then your understanding of deity is too small
and needs to grow."
I thank God for that learning!
It has saved me from an archaic
and inflexible belief system
many, many times.

My friends, George and Janet,
being learned people
could not tolerate the confining faith
that was familiar to them.
They didn't know that faith could free them
to include an expanding faith & experience.
As J. B. Phillips would have said,
their God was too small.

This is a tough learning for many in Judeo-Christian groups.
Those traditions look to a Bible that comes to this day
from a very brief span of 1500 years
and from a single very narrow cultural setting.
Christians follow a specific person,
born into our history on this tiny planet
a mere speck in the vastness of time..

Is this Bible,
is this Jesus,
the Spirit's exclusive and total Word to humankind? --
or are they windows to yet greater truth to be revealed to us?

Whatever our religious perspective,
Christian, Buddhist, humanist, pagan, atheist;
any of these can be confining
or liberating.
It can isolate us
or open us to the whole of this amazing creation.
It can prevent our growth
or it can free us
to find our faith ever new
in a dynamic universe.

John Robinson, pastor to the Pilgrims,
was not privileged to join them on the Mayflower
as it set sail for the new world.
As he bid the Pilgrims farewell
he sent these Congregationalists on their way
with a blessing.
Perhaps it was his word
that planted the seeds of Unitarian Universalism in America!
He encouraged them to keep alert
for every new truth that might break forth into their lives.
Two hundred fifty years later
John Robinson's message found its way
into the poetry of George Rawson
who wrote:
"We limit not the truth of God
to our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial, and confined.
No, let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:
(For God) hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from the Word."

As we enter a new century
let us celebrate a faith that frees,
a faith with room to grow.